… asked my son recently as we walked around a country churchyard. Well might he wonder. Was this in fact a woman “of uncommon virtues and endowments”? Was that man really “eminently distinguished for his extensive learning, brilliancy of wit, cheerfulness of disposition and unbounded charity”? Of course, tombstone inscriptions do not tell us directly about the dead. They tell us what those still alive saw fit to say about the dead – something quite different. Yet this very triteness and conventionality is a boon for historians, for it shows that we are dealing not with the opinions of this or that individual but the moral commonplaces of the age. Add to this the fact that tombstone inscriptions are distributed thickly across the country and across decades, and we have in them an ideal map of the changing landscape of ethical appraisal. What fossils are to the palaeontologist, tombstone inscriptions might become to the historian of moral attitudes.
This website collects together for the first time memorials of the virtuous dead from churches and cathedrals across England. Each inscription has been photographed and catalogued under various headings — name, profession, date of death, … — allowing users to look for individual epitaphs of uncommon interest and/or to identify trends and correlations. Were women more likely to be praised for “tenderness” than men? Was “devotion to duty” a peculiarly late-Victorian ideal? The answer seems to be “yes” in both cases.
Of course, a database of this sort can only hope to be representative, not comprehensive. To date (September 2019), I have collected 338 epitaphs out of a total of thousands. This is already enough for some cautious generalisations. The more records we have, the more certain these generalisations will become. To this end, we invite users to send in images of their own, with a reference to their location.